TAMPA — For all the anticipation created when the NHL this season put the Lightning and Stars in the same temporary division — resulting in eight regular-season meetings between the teams that met in last season’s Stanley Cup final, with the potential for more in the postseason — time has taken some of the excitement out of the rematches.
The teams have taken winding paths to their first meeting since Tampa Bay dispatched Dallas in a six-game final in September in Edmonton.
The Lightning’s first road trip of the season was supposed to send them to Dallas, but the games were postponed after the start of the Stars’ season was delayed due to a coronavirus outbreak. Tampa Bay was slated to travel to Dallas again this month, but last week’s winter storm, record-low temperatures and power outages forced that series to be delayed.
As a result, the Stars are the only Central Division team the Lightning have yet to play entering their meeting tonight at Amalie Arena. That means Tampa Bay will see more of Dallas than any other opponent in the strictly interdivisional play down the stretch. In that sense, no team could have more of an impact on Tampa Bay’s path to the postseason.
Five things to know heading into tonight:
The rematch has lost much of its luster
Maybe this will change once the teams start playing each other, but entering their first meeting of the year, the matchup seems more anticlimactic than anything else. That has to do in large part to it taking six weeks into the season to happen.
“I don’t know if it’s as big a deal, other than the fact that we’re both trying to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs in a really tough division and two points are on the line,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said just before the last series was postponed. “So maybe the first one’s (bigger) just because it’s the two teams. But as this goes on, neither team will care. It’s just about the game.”
The Stars’ biggest challenge isn’t the Lightning
The Stars’ biggest hurdle to getting back to the playoffs is their schedule. Between the coronavirus and the weather, they have had eight games rescheduled, which is forcing them to play their final 43 games in 76 days. That includes 10 sets of back-to-back games.
“Hockey is not meant to be played four (games) in six (days), let alone what we’re going to do,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said Wednesday. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I hope I never see it again. This is going to be incredibly taxing on our players, there’s no question.”
Bowness worries that all those games bunched together will lead to more banged-up players than usual down the stretch.
“There’s going to be more injuries coming up,” Bowness said. “There’s no getting away (from it). When you look at that schedule, I see injuries written all over it.”
The teams are going in opposite directions
The Stars beat the Blue Jackets 6-3 on Feb. 2 to improve to 5-1-1. Since then, they have won just one of their past eight games and are sixth in the division with a 6-5-4 record and 16 points. Of those seven losses in the past eight games, five were by a goal, including three in overtime and one in a shootout. So while the losses have mounted, the Stars have played close, competitive games. Still, they’ve had difficulty scoring, averaging just 2.1 goals over that stretch.
Meanwhile, the Lightning have won three straight, all against the Hurricanes, after dropping three of four games before that. The recent winning stretch includes Thursday’s 3-1 win over Carolina in which Tampa Bay didn’t play well but still gutted out a victory.
Other division rivals have emerged for the Lightning
When the divisions were realigned for this season because of coronavirus issues, the Lightning and Stars were among the favorites to win the Central. The Hurricanes were in that group, too. But since then, the Panthers also have emerged as strong competition.
Florida and Carolina have shown that they can match up with Tampa Bay with their speed and ability to possess the puck. They’ve challenged the Lightning in both areas, which is why those three teams are among the top four in the division standings, along with Chicago.
The top four in each division make the playoffs.
Though the Lightning just took three of four games from Carolina, that shouldn’t dent the Hurricanes’ contender status.
“They’ll be there all year long,” Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney said after recording 31 saves in Thursday’s win. “They’ve got a lot of great players, and they work extremely hard. I am sure we’ll be seeing them quite a few times down the stretch here and into the playoffs, as well.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard
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